Say It in French: C’est La Loi

by Thom Tracy

2 min read

With a population nearing 8 million people, doing business in the province of Quebec can be attractive and lucrative. However, since 85% of the population’s first language is French, you will need to adapt to the province’s unique character and place within Canada. While the legal system in Quebec is very different from the rest of Canada, there are many more factors to consider. Over the years, Quebec has adopted strict laws to protect and promote the use of French by businesses. Here is what you need to be aware of before expanding your small business to the Quebec market.

The Charter of the French Language

Known generally as Bill 101 — from its original bill number in the provincial national assembly — the Charter of the French Language is the main law that governs the use of French in government, schools, and business. It is administered by the Office Québécois de la Langue Française (OQFL). The OQLF publishes several guides — many in English — to help businesses comply with the existing laws.

Part of the OQLF’s mandate is also to ensure that the laws are complied with in practice. This means that there are actual inspectors that visit businesses to inspect their operations and have the power to impose fines and compel changes to practices that do not meet Bill 101’s standards.

Signs and Labels

This is the most often debated portion of the language laws. The basic rule is simple: all labels, signs, and marketing materials must be in French. Or, if they are bilingual, then French must be the prevalent language. What “prevalent” means is usually interpreted as either putting French first or in a larger font on signs and publications.

However, there are exceptions to this general rule. Famously, it was decided that restaurants can use foreign words to describe ethnic foods as long as the menu descriptions are in French. Therefore, it is acceptable for an Italian restaurant to have “pasta” and “polpete” on its menu, even though the actual French words should be “pâtes” and “boulettes de viande.”

International brands are also, to some extent, exempt from translation. Wal-Mart, Canadian Tire, and others can therefore use their regular name. Others must add a descriptive French word to their brand. For example, Second Cup become Les Cafés Second Cup. The rules change over time and you should check what is applicable to your particular situation prior to spending time and resources producing materials destined for Quebec.

Communication with Employees

Another important aspect of Quebec’s language laws is that all employees are entitled to receive communications from their employers in the French language. This means more than simply speaking French during meetings or saying “bonjour” in the hallways. Company policies such as workplace safety rules, internet usage, practices, and procedures must all be translated and made available to the employees. As a small business, translation is a cost you will need to factor in when deciding to do business in Quebec.

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